PNG governance: Is Australia in a position to cast judgement?
Innocence of Childhood

Peter O'Neill survives, but PNG's democracy is teetering


IN WHAT seemed to be an overwhelming display of strength, the PNG Parliament last Friday voted by 85 to 21 to retain Prime Minister Peter O'Neill until the 2017 national election.

The numbers were potentially much closer. Three former prime ministers – Michael Somare, Mekere Morauta and Julius Chan – voted with the opposition but a fourth, Paias Wingti, decided just before the vote to support the government. He could have brought with him up to 26 votes, and this may have triggered others to abandon O'Neill.

The road to the vote of no confidence was painful, even deadly.

In PNG, with a weak party system, votes of no confidence are the major way PNG changes prime minister between elections. Until the start of the year, O'Neill's dominance appeared supreme but escalating economic problems and attempts to close down the police fraud squad after the arrest in April of the Prime Minister's lawyer, a Supreme Court judge and the attorney-general led to growing student and civil protests.

Police fired into student protesters on 8 June as they tried to march to Parliament when it was due to consider an earlier vote. Parliament immediately adjourned until after a constitutional deadline for such votes.

Frustration continued to build. A student was killed and buildings destroyed as tensions spread to a university in Lae. The churches expressed displeasure. Pilots started an effective strike. Port workers said they were ready to down tools, and doctors and nurses threatened to walk off the job.

Against the wishes of the government the Supreme Court intervened, ordering that Parliament meet to consider a much deferred no-confidence motion. The government quickly set up 'camp' at a resort in faraway Alotau to minimise the chances of its members being enticed to the opposition.

The party system is very weak in PNG. The government controls a very big money stick as opposition members lose full and timely access to $4 million each year for spending in their electorates.

On Friday, the debate on the no-confidence motion was limited to two speeches on each side before the debate was gagged.

The opposition reiterated concerns about the Prime Minister's refusal to face corruption allegations in the courts – a situation exacerbated by his sacking of the attorney-general and the Commissioner of Police, defunding the anti-corruption task force, attempting to dismiss the heads of the Police Fraud Squad and failing to establish the much-promised Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The opposition also emphasised economic mismanagement. The PNG economy has been in serious in decline since 2014 with a 7% fall in employment, 16% drop in business sales, 4% drop in private sector credit and a fall in real non-resource GDP per capita of over 5%. Government cash shortages and foreign exchange restrictions are hurting business and public services.

The government response focused on the importance of political stability in times of global uncertainty and, in reference to O'Neill, that he should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in the courts.

So what happens now?

The most likely scenario is a reluctant compliance with the parliamentary vote and a focus on the 2017 election. Civil society will be determined to do what it can to ensure a free and fair election. For his part, O'Neill will be intent on maintaining his increasingly strong grip on the police and defence forces. It is likely he will try to corral the media, especially social media, which continues to be an irritant.

If civil unrest continues, an emboldened PM may use instruments such as a state of emergency to stifle opposition (one was declared earlier this year to collect power bills). Recent developments in Turkey indicate how the power of the state can be used to suppress opposition. If he feels under threat, a state of emergency could even be used to justify deferring the election.

However, the centralisation of power in the Prime Minister's office and selective application of constituency funds provides a huge incumbency advantage. O'Neill is a tough and canny politician.

If re-elected, his tendency towards autocracy could entrench a pattern of slow decline in democracy and impair development – such as happened in Zimbabwe. And this creates opportunities for greater influence from countries with less democratic and market-oriented belief systems.

The strategic imperatives for Australia are complex. We need a friendly and cooperative PNG, and O'Neill knows it. A Papua New Guinea governed by a tough, authoritarian leader who knows how to ruthlessly manipulate the tools of state control would be something new and challenging for Australia to deal with on its northern border.

After World War I, Prime Minister Billy Hughes argued that the former German colony of New Guinea should become a mandated territory under Australia's control rather than Japan's.

This imposed major economic, political and moral obligations on Australia. Hughes' far-sightedness meant the history of World War II for Australia was very different as there was not a well-entrenched Japanese army in New Guinea in 1939.

In one of the two speeches supporting the Prime Minister on Friday, Morobe Governor Kelly Naru quoted from the Chinese proverb: "patience is power".

There are some unfolding scenarios to our very near North which make that a very worrying proverb.

Paul Flanagan is director of PNG Economics. This article was published in today’s Australian Financial Review


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Bernard Corden

Hi Chris,

Your comments have had me searching for my copy of Philip Bobbitt's The Shield Of Achilles - War, peace and the course of history. I bought it at Changi airport several years ago and never got around to finishing it.
I eventually found it in one of my bookcases and can now finish were I left off.

Coincidentally, it has an Air Niugini Flight PX 101 boarding pass inside as a bookmark.

Chris Overland

I would contend that democracy is alive and well in PNG despite the obvious abuses of power perpetrated by PNG's first genuine strongman in Peter O'Neill, who operates in the style epitomised by Robert Mugabe.

The problem is that the democratic processes keep producing politicians whose first and only priority is the acquisition of personal power, influence and, of course, money.

Electoral success translates into the means to both enrich themselves and fulfill their obligations to their wantoks.

This is entirely consistent with both the traditions of the past and the much more modern phenomenon whereby successful politicians and parties across the world increasingly rely upon bribes in various forms to ensure electoral success.

Peter O'Neill has fully understood this central motivation amongst his Parliamentary colleagues and, so far at least, proved marvellously adept at entrenching himself in power as a consequence.

PNG's malaise, although having a distinctive Melanesian character, is merely part of the broader malaise infecting the world's democracies.

Across the globe we see increasing evidence of how the voters who feel powerless and disenfranchised by today's "retail politics" are turning to populists offering sometimes quite extreme alternatives to the status quo.

It is no accident I think that that the emergence of a professional political class is being accompanied by growing resentment and anger amongst electors.

Increasingly, politicians are not seen as being of or even for "us", but as being of and for "them", whoever they may be.

This is the burden that Hillary Clinton carries in the USA, while her inconsistent, intemperate and sometimes irrational opponent, Donald Trump, is able to flaunt his "authenticity" by deliberately ignoring or demonstrating total contempt for the accepted political norms.

It is amazing to think that Trump, who is spectacularly lacking in all of the critical attributes necessary for Presidential office, is actually leading Clinton in the current polls.

The alarm bells are screaming for every political party in every democracy, yet our politicians seem quite unable or unwilling to respond with other than more of the same.

This will greatly embolden authoritarians everywhere, who will see this of further evidence of the fundamental weakness of democracy as a system of governance.

We have, of course, seen this all before. As the world's democracies flailed about during the Great Depression, the Italian, German and Japanese fascists constantly sought to contrast their strength and certainty with the doubt, equivocation and fearfulness of their opponents.

After Munich in 1938, when the Western powers shamefully ceded control over Czechoslovakia to Germany, Hitler was heard to say that he had seen Germany's enemies close up and that they were "worms".

Well might Mr Putin be thinking the same thing as he gazes upon the debacle that is Europe and the emerging political disaster in the USA.

Thus, the further cementing of Peter O'Neill's power in PNG is simply another manifestation of the apparent failure of democracy across the globe to effectively deal with a range in serious international crises and local socio-economic and political issues.

Make no mistake, we are living in increasingly dangerous times for the world and the inherent risks involved are being greatly exacerbated by the manifest weaknesses now apparent in the world's most important democracies.

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